Monday, December 20, 2010

HeeJae- The World on the Other Side of the Fence

Sounds of a rice cooker giving off steam; lute tunes and drum beats reminiscent more of the East than of the West. Dyed handkerchiefs and flags with patterns that seem to be related to some tribe; a scroll paper with the image of Buddha and incomprehensible inscriptions; a little yak model sitting by the bed. These were not what I expected to hear and see in a high-rise in Toronto.
High-rise is a project by NFB that attempts to provide windows to people scattered over the world who live in the same dull-looking high-rises but who lead different lifestyles. When I was assigned to explore a Toronto household, I expected a typical white family, so I was surprised to see a place that hardly seemed to represent Western culture, save the TV. I soon learned that this family is one of the nearly 2000 Tibetan exiles in Toronto. Amchock, the father of the family, travelled on foot for a month to escape the Chinese-controlled Tibet. Perhaps many years have passed since he had settled in Toronto, but the atmosphere of the house seemed as if his true self was still lingering in Tibet. He seemed a discordant person in the midst of high-rises.
However, after listening to Amchock’s music, I realized I was wrong. As he began to play the lute and sing traditional Tibetan songs, the kids sitting on the couch rose up and started to clap and dance around. The wife tapped out the beat with her feet and two Carcassian men playing the drum joined in with the kids. Amchock sang in his own language, yet it seemed to speak to all the people and bring them together. Perhaps, this is what he meant by “moving the masses through words and melody.” I could imagine him performing in front of more than 30,000 Canadians before the Dalai Lama’s speech, speaking to the people through his Tibetan rhythm, and bringing his world and their world into harmony.
Amchock survived poverty through music and found happiness and harmony, but he must have led a difficult life as a Tibetan exile. However, just out of his window, there are thousands of more people facing difficulties as well. There are more than 1000 residential high-rises, but 80% of them are privately owned, and citizens have to pay exorbitant prices for the wretched buildings. The African American drummer in the film, for example, says he hated to move where he lives now, but had to because there are not many available places.
It reminded me of what I see out my window in Seoul. Looking eastward, I can see Mount Inwang and Mount Ansan surrounding the apartment, and a park that becomes cleaner and greener everyday thanks to the efforts to create an environmentally friendly town. Looking northward, I can see a playground that looked so big when I was young, but it seems so small now.
Looking straight ahead, there is a fence- the fence that divides the apartments and a series of shacks going up the hill. Then, there are stone steps, the only door to enter “the other world.” Going down the steps, there is an alley where stores constantly open and close.
When I first moved into the apartment with my family eleven years ago, I did not like the crowded shacks on the other side of the fence. They did not fit with the newly built apartments. They were an eyesore. I even wondered whether someone actually lived in them. Looking down on these houses from the veranda of the apartment, I thought, “Why not tear them down and build fancy apartments? Then, more people can live, and it would definitely look prettier.”
As I grew up, I began to understand the more complex issues that underlie the seeming disharmony of the presence of the shacks that form a village, collectively referred to as a “Dal” village. Primarily, Dal means the moon in Korean. I wondered why people would give such a romantic name to the tumbledown old shacks. Some people say it is because these shacks are mostly built on a hill that they nearly reach the moon, and others say it is because the people living there go to work early in the morning when the moon still dangles in the sky, and similarly return home late at night. However, Dal actually derives from the word meaning mountain or dirt, so Dal village, after all, is not a romantic name but a strictly realistic one that refers to shacks built on the mountain side.
The Dal village was created after the Korean War in 1953 when homeless people began to build temporary places with panels to settle down. Even after the high-rises began to fill the city, the people still remained since they could not afford the high prices of the apartments. However, with the urban redevelopment project, the Dal villages have been torn down and people were forced out of their homes. Now, only a few Dal villages remain, and the one in my area is among the few.
The two contiguous worlds, and two different lifestyles separated by a fence affected my childhood, although I was unaware of this back then. When I was nine years old, I invited a classmate, Won Jung, to my house. Upon entering, she exclaimed, “Your room looks like an art hall!” I thought it was a little odd for her to say so because to me, my room looked mundane compared to my other friends’. Then, we played house as usual. When it was meal time while playing, Won Jung said, “Soju* and cheonggukjang**, please.” I soon forgot about this incident, but as I recall it, I now realize the significance of it. I never saw my parents ordering soju and cheonggukjang, and it certainly is not normal for people living in the apartments. However, for Won Jung, who lives on the opposite side of the fence, it was something she was used to.
The plight of the people living in that Dal village and those thrown out of their homes had little significance for me. Four years ago, when the teacher assigned us to read “The Dwarf’s Ball,” one of the must-read Korean books that discusses the wretched lives of people thrown out from Dal Village, I could not sympathize with the characters because their stories seemed so distant and disconnected from my own. I did not realize then that the exact same thing has happened in my village, and may happen out my window in a few years.
Until now, when I look out the window, I paid little attention to the people living on the other side of the fence. The shacks merely seemed out of place to me. However, I am beginning to understand the reality of what I see out there and wonder what stories those people have. Lamentation? Misery? Just as Amchock survived through music and brought harmony, I believe the people over the fence also have something powerful and meaningful to tell in their lives.
I see embers of hope in their stories.

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